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The Gospel According to Stephen McBean

With the new album from his solo project, the Black Mountain front man takes a U-turn from hedonistic to repentant.

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Pink Mountaintops

Axis of Evol

(Jagjaguwar)

Rock 'n' roll is like a religion founded on the embrace of the profane, its rite of passage a casting aside of the moral codes that apply to so-called decent society. It inverts the idea of salvation--ephemeral songs on the radio become the gospel, the sexual bounty of girls the not-so-eternal reward. What's being saved still sounds like it might be a soul--rock has never strayed too terribly far from its roots in the blues and hillbilly music, both of which are cozy with actual churches--but what rock promises to deliver people from isn't usually hellfire. Instead it tells young men they don't have to spend another lonely night at home or waste another summer hanging out on the hood of the Dodge and gettin' gully with the Magic Rat. Rock singers may plead like they're on their knees before the Almighty, but there's no hiding the real nature of their desperate desires.

The Pink Mountaintops' self-titled debut, which came out in 2004, doesn't try to hide a thing--it's a nonstop fuckfest. A concept album dreamed up by Stephen McBean--also the leader of Vancouver indie-scuzz quintet Black Mountain, who've benefited from the recent vogue for Canadian bands and last year toured with Coldplay--Pink Mountaintops abandons itself to carnality with the same completeness that a Pentecostal preacher abandons himself to the Holy Spirit. McBean says he came up with the idea for the record at the end of a long tour, high on Sparks and ephedrine and seriously missing his wife. It's pure porn boogie so ribald and strange (not just women but also the usually unfuckable elements of fire and water get penetrated) that you could almost misread it as an ironic commentary on indie rock's tendency to swaddle sex talk in shy romantic allusion. On "Sweet '69" McBean sings, "Let me wrap my legs around you / Sweet honey pie / Gonna put my lips right on you." And then he busts a harmonica solo.

This all makes the Pink Mountaintops' current album, Axis of Evol, come off like either a startling reversal or a predictable backlash. McBean is still singing with desperate abandon, but now his lyrics are about spiritual transfiguration--he sounds shaken, begging to be reborn out of his personal rock 'n' roll inferno of lust and willful indulgence. He doesn't need to be saved from bad circumstances but rather from himself and what all this vice has made of him. The bargain he's looking to strike with God is a most traditional one: my soul for a little bit of Your mercy.

On the album opener, "Comas," he sings, "I know I'm not headed down the highway to hell / I'm through with you devils," his spent drawl in stark contrast to the conviction in his words. The song's refrain suggests that getting saved is a simple matter of exchange--Jesus into your heart, you into His--and that Jesus already did His part on the cross. "Take what you want / What you want is for free," McBean sings. "Free to take you / And you to take me."

From there, Axis of Evol wavers little from its narratives of done-wrong people (and did-wrong people) who've grown weary with sins both venal and unpardonable. Every one of its seven songs is sung from the perspective of someone who's turned away from that kind of life, and the bad behavior is usually relegated to the past tense: "We loved our winters high on crime," for instance, or "We were out of control." (In present tense you get lines like "I'm living outside / I'm free.") With his voice lower and more distant than on his previous albums, McBean sometimes sounds like Bill Callahan of Smog coming to after a lifelong bender, drawing out his words as though he needs the extra time to remember what comes next. On "Cold Criminals" his ravaged croon flattens out, drooping in pitch as he tells a tale of the unrepentant, then lifts up over a clipped, repeating measure of fuzz guitar as he sings, "Chained and shackled / Free for the last time / The devil's got us in his plans." It's not just the long arm of law that makes these criminals suffer, but also their burdened hearts. On "Plastic Man, You're the Devil" McBean calls down damnation on people who seem so sure God's on their side that they no longer fear Him--and the lyrics allude to America's contemptible foreign policy, suggesting that Bush and company, or perhaps the country as a whole, will have to answer to the big guy for what's happened in Haditha, Fallujah, and Guantanamo.

McBean himself seems properly respectful of God, and on "Lord, Let Us Shine" he explicitly adopts the role of supplicant: "Lord, won't you let us shine / Would you be so kind . . . won't you let us climb." The final verse reads like a Baptist hymn, but its humble petition is set to a jangly, fuzzy, minimalist groove that wouldn't sound out of place on White Light/White Heat: "Great savior / We're burning / From the sinners' fire / Our hands have / Been praying / All through the night." Behind McBean's slurred word-breaths, the massed voices of a female chorus crackle with lo-fi distortion, which keeps getting noisier till it fills the track to its brim and drowns out the frantic la la las--it sounds like a Sunday-school song gone off the rails.

Like the Black Mountain full-length, Axis of Evol closes with a slow-burn epic about the war in Iraq. Like "Plastic Man" before it, "How We Can Get Free" indicts men of war who play God, giving orders and taking lives without reflection or regret. When McBean asks, like a true disciple, "Jesus, what do you believe?," his voice languid and raw over a barely strummed acoustic guitar, it's the album's most effective moment. What all these songs are saying, with their narratives of sin and repentance, is that freedom lies in giving yourself over, in letting go of the notion that you're in control or should be. McBean even implies that extinguishing the self by succumbing to wickedness can be a first step toward a better life--God can make a home in the empty space the devil leaves behind. Even for the worst among us, there's always the possibility of redemption. It's simply a matter of choice.

Pink Mountaintops, Black Angels, Catfish Haven

When: Tue 6/13, 9:30 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: $10

Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dale Nixon.

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